Sewing Salmon Spines at Nunalleq

IMG_0251Since we stopped excavating on Thursday, August 13, I have spent much of my time over the last 2 days sewing half-macerated salmon spines. During our time here at Nunalleq (see, my University of Aberdeen colleague Edouard Masson-Maclean has been building a large collection of salmon carcasses representing various species of Oncorhynchus and Salvelinus so as to try to see if he can develop a new geometric-morphometric method that can be used to distinguish salmon species. Some readers will recall our optimism with the Huber et al. (2011) method, but our findings in Moss, Judd, and Kemp (2014) raised some questions about the accuracy of the method.  You will have to watch for Edouard’s blog entry (hopefully coming soon) on the Nunalleq blog to find out more about the method.

In the meantime, Edouard has collected ~20 individuals each of king, silver, red, and pink salmon and Dolly Varden and rainbow trout.  That’s alot of fish!  The method involves working with the vertebrae, the most common element found archaeologically. Edouard wants to track the measurements of each vertebra (by number) so the individual vertebrae must be preserved in anatomical order— and salmon have more than 60 vertebrae each! So when the spines are partly macerated, but still articulated, you pull the spinal column out of the bucket in which it is soaking, and disarticulate the vertebrae in order (as shown in the photo below)

IMG_0249and then sew them together.  I’ve been starting from the tail, and using a steel sewing needle.  It’s a bit messy (and smelly) because there’s still cartilage between the vertebrae and the notocord itself is amazingly strong… I often have to dig it out with my needle. I haven’t hand-sewn anything for multiple hours for many years… it is tiring work for the fingers.

Intensive sewing like this gives me a new found appreciation for the seamstresses and skin-boat sewers at Nunalleq… they spent many hours sewing caribou hide, walrus and sealskins, birdskins, etc.  Their stitches had to be perfect to sew waterproof clothing and the skins covering the kayaks and umiaqs.  What a job!  I didn’t have a thimble, but was able to use the corner of the table as an anvil of sorts to press my needle through.  I also relied alot on my teeth to pull the needle through, as seamstresses have been doing for thousands, or even tens of thousands of years.

IMG_0250So this is what a sewn spine looks like.  Not the most glamorous job, but zooarchaeologists have a penchant for odd jobs. The spine here will be returned to a bucket for more maceration and then rinsed over the screen one more time before we pack it and all the others up for Aberdeen.  It’s unfortunate that the fish won’t be fully clean before shipping, but alas we have been too busy excavating! I was able to sew 13 spines yesterday and another 20 (or was it 21?) in a 9-hour day today.  But there are more to do.

So why did I go to Nunalleq?

It’s because of the herring project…. The Archaeology of Herring: Reconstructing the Past to Redeem the Future that I’ve been working on for several years….

Most of my time here I’ve been excavating to understand the context of the site.  We use 1/2 inch screens in the field, which are too coarse to recover herring bones.  But the main problem is that the botanical remains in each screen-load are so dense, with this fantastic preservation, that we cannot see herring bones.  The only way to recover herring bones is from fine-screened samples.  My colleague Paul Ledger (also U Aberdeen) offered to help me out on Day 1, by sharing samples he has taken for his paleoethnobotanical and paleoecological work. Paul has samples of 1 mm mesh that I will be able to sort for herring bones! In fact, Paul has already sorted out small fish vertebrae, so I am very excited to see some of his samples. This is all part of my effort to acquire archaeological herring bone samples from western Alaska.  I don’t know for sure that herring will be there, but I am hopeful to find some herring. Stay tuned!

You can also see my blog entries on the Nunalleq wordpress site:

  • “Thanks to the Lab Assistants” August 15
  • “The Mysterious Mussels of Nunalleq” August 12
  • “The Artifact of the Day – Kayak – Walrus – Spirit Transformation” – August 11
  • “Salmon at Nunalleq – Best Preserved Ever at Nunalleq” – August 7
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Tcetxo Fish

CfEnmo.vert1.length CfHypr.vert4.lengthThe Chetco Indian village of Tcetxo (35-CU-42) is located on the Port of Brookings Harbor property in southern Oregon. The port’s commercial receiving dock was badly damaged by a tsunami in March 2011 and required extensive repairs. Before this was done, Rick Minor and his firm, Heritage Research Associates,  excavated some backhoe trenches and test pits and recovered a variety of remains from the remnant shell midden, dated to 2000-1300 years ago (Minor 2012). Julie Ricks analyzed over 25,000 vertebrate faunal remains, most of which were fish. Rockfish was the most common taxon, but many others were identified too. A number of bulk column samples were excavated, but not processed until spring of 2015 when my Zooarchaeology students started work on the project. Sarah Mendiaz took these photographs and Kyla Page-Bothelo is continuing work on the project. Stay tuned for our results… but I’ll reveal here that most of the new taxa we’re identifying are from 1 mm mesh screens!

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Cougar-gate Update

IMG_20150522_154553_399The cougar is *almost* ready for graduation, thanks to:

Carly Pate, Kelsey Clarke, Skyler Mitchell,  Julia Arenson, Morgan Giles, Josie Beaver,  Harry Sullivan, Andrea Eller, and Colin Oliveira. Thank you!

Carly reports that the students collected muscle mass measurements as they removed meat from the bones; 24.3 kg (53.5 lbs.) of muscle was removed before processing. Although they won’t win any culinary awards, I could not be happier with the results of their work. Special thanks are due to Molly Shelton, John Steele, and Frances White, each of whom also played key roles in the adventure we’re calling, Cougar-gate.

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A Cougar Processed by Ducks

cougar and three

Carly Pate, Morgan Giles, and Kelsey Clarke breaking down rib cage & vertebrae, May 11, 2015. Photo by M. Moss

Thanks to Zooarchaeology student Molly Shelton and her generous sheep-ranching friends, we have a new addition to the North Pacific Comparative Collection.  A six-year-old male Puma concolor had recently taken one too many sheep and was donated to the UO Department of Anthropology. The remarkably enthusiastic Primate Osteology Lab Students have risen to the challenge to process the specimen.  Despite the complaints of an “unfortunate odor” in Condon Hall (thank you, Colin, for that euphemism!), the students are doing a fantastic job and we hope the cougar is ready for display on graduation day!  A special thanks to Professor Frances White and graduate student Andrea Eller for providing the resources and training the students to accomplish this critical (but stomach-wrenching) work. Thanks also to John Steele whose brilliant “carcass packaging” and strong back facilitated transport (I will spare you more details.)

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Marmots on Admiralty Island?

2662Years ago, when I was the archaeologist for Admiralty Island National Monument, I was surprised that several marmot bones were reported from Daxatkanada, an archaeological site first excavated by Frederica de Laguna in 1949-50 and later re-investigated as part of my dissertation.  Having worked on Admiralty Island with knowledgeable biologists, I had learned that marmots do not occur naturally on any island other than Douglas Island (near Juneau) in the Alexander Archipelago (see also McDonald & Cook 2009:67-70 Recent Mammals of Alaska). Back then, I suspected that the original identification was in error, but during 2014, I had the privilege of examining the faunal remains recovered by de Laguna that now reside in the Hearst Museum of UC Berkeley. What you see in the photo is the archaeological specimen (a femur) in the center, compared to my juvenile yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) above and a land otter (Lontra canadensis) below.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a an adult M. caligata to compare.  This femur and other specimens from the site really do appear to be marmot.  So we must infer that somebody at Daxatkanada was in the possession of the bones of a marmot or two.  The question is why? Heaton and Grady (2003) found M. caligata in Pleistocene fossil assemblages (dated to 26-27,000 years ago) from Prince of Wales Island.  Could marmots have been more widespread throughout the Alexander Archipelago during pre-contact times than during the 20th century? Did Tlingit ancestors curate and transport marmot bones from the mainland to Admiralty Island? Were whole marmots traded to the islands? If the skins were valued, I wonder why the bones show up… marmots do not seem like they would be highly desired food animals, but then, I have never tasted marmot.

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hunting for herring & finding smelt from 49-NAK-008

49NAK008 smeltLast spring, while working in the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the sharp-eyed Anna Sloan found some small fish bones in a feature sample Don Dumond excavated from the Leader Creek site, 49-NAK-008, in 1973. In the pursuit of herring bones for our ancient DNA study, I examined the bones.  They weren’t herring but appear to be smelt, but not the eulachon or surf smelt we have in our comparative collection. This was confirmed after taking the specimens to Portland State, and examining Virginia Butler’s excellent collection. Rory Walsh took this great photo, and based on their provenience, I am *guessing* that these may be rainbow smelt, Osmerus mordax, which are common in this region. But rainbow smelt, to my knowledge, have never been identified in an Alaskan archaeological site.  At least some of the vertebrae (like the one in the upper right) look as if it passed through a digestive system, so perhaps these are stomach contents? I would love to be able to confirm the identification: does anyone have a rainbow smelt specimen available for loan? Or better yet, if you live on the Alaska Peninsula and fish for smelt, I would love to acquire a frozen fish to process.  I will pay for shipping! Has anyone ever identified rainbow smelt archaeologically?

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The Columbia: River of Shad?

Last week I delivered a public lecture at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, The Archaeology of Herring: Fisheries and Sustainability across Millennia. Mostly I talked about Pacific herring in Alaska and B.C.  I had a great audience, many of them fellow fish-lovers, and some good questions were asked, including ones I couldn’t answer. One person asked about the Columbia River shad, about which I knew only as an important East Coast fish that was introduced into the Pacific Northwest.  I commented that my father would probably be ashamed of my knowing so little about this fish. Stimulated by the the questioner’s prompting (and not wanting to further embarrass my father who taught me to fish), I’ve learned that the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the clupeid (herring) family.  Although it gets bigger on the east coast, it can grow to 24 inches and 8 lbs. in the Columbia. This species was introduced into the Sacramento River in 1871, and some stragglers found their way to the Columbia even before it was introduced there in 1885. Shad have been incredibly successful adapting to the Columbia, especially after the “Celilo Invasion” in 1957 when they were able to get past the falls with the construction of the Dalles Dam.  So while this and other dams have harmed salmon, new niches have been created for shad.  As Hinrichsen and Ebbesmeyer (1998:) wrote, “as long as we have dams on the Columbia… it may be best to value and manage the shad.” Their article in Shad Journal is very instructive <>. We should all be eating more shad, and their roe sounds especially delicious.

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Herring Eggs in Sitka

What a privilege to go out on the boat with Sitka Tribe resource managers Jeff Feldpausch and Jessica Gill to watch them pull a set of hemlock branches covered in herring roe. Not being an Alaska resident, I couldn’t help with the harvest, but I was able to help with the processing along with other STA employees and also some ADF&G subsistence personnel.   We processed about 900 lbs. of roe with about 7 people working 4 hours.  It was impressive. And herring eggs right off the rock are so delicious!  What a special food…I’ve had herring eggs before but nothing else compares. Processing herring eggs with Sitka Tribe of Alaska

Processing herring eggs with Sitka Tribe of Alaska
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Archaeology of Herring – now in PNAS

Iain McKechnie and Madonna Moss

McKechnie & Moss looking at Cl pa 9 (Clupea pallasi #9) in comparative collection

We are excited to announce that our Northwest Coast-wide study of herring has just appeared in PNAS:

McKechnie, I., D. Lepofsky, M.L. Moss, V.L. Butler, T.J. Orchard, G. Coupland, F. Foster, M. Caldwell, and K. Lertzman (2014) Archaeological Data Provide Alternative Hypotheses on Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) Distribution, Abundance, and Variability. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316072111. Online February 18, 2014.

You can find the paper at <>

See also: <>



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Not-so-deep History of Pacific Flyway

Here is one of five ducks I recently salvaged from Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to the excellent staff there. There was a duck die-off in early September and many ducks succumbed to a botulism outbreak due to over-crowding around the shrinking waters of Tulelake. This duck will be processed in Frances White’s lab by one of her excellent students, under the supervision of Andrea Eller and Samantha Buckley.  We will use its bones to help identify the genus Aythya in archaeological assemblages.

adult male ring-necked duck

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